I should preface this passage with the following: I am fine. Nothing is wrong and, in fact, my body has never been in better shape.
But that wasn’t how it felt just a few weeks ago when a dull pain — an ache — ran through my left arm. That wasn’t how it felt when my hand went numb, when I lost the feeling in my fingers. That wasn’t how I felt when the light-headedness and dizziness started.
I was nauseated, and I was exhausted.
I tried to ignore it but I knew something was wrong.
I tried to ignore it but I knew my body was failing me.
I tried to ignore it but Google and WebMD knew I was dying. Well, they let me know it was a heart attack or gas, but with a pop-up warning me to seek a medical help immediately I was off to the ER.
After a sleepless night, endless blood samples, urine samples, EKG’s, a chest X-ray, and a stress test I got the news I really knew: I was fine.
And that sucked more.
To be clear: I am happier than a proverbial pig in shit to know I am well. What I was not happy about was the wasted night, the wasted money, and the wasted time. I was not happy that I was stuck in a narrow white hallway all evening watching people be poked and prodded. Watching people throw up. And I was not happy with my own reaction to the “it could be anxiety” diagnosis. Why? Because I — someone who is well-versed in mental health — immediately felt angry. I felt like I made it up in my head. I felt I made it worse in my head. I felt like the whole situation was my fault.
- Feelings of panic, fear, and uneasiness
- Problems sleeping
- Cold or sweaty hands and/or feet
- Shortness of breath (Check!)
- Heart palpitations (Um, yup. Another check.)
- An inability to be still and calm
- Dry mouth
- Numbness or tingling in the hands or feet (Damn it. I’m seeing a pattern here.)
- Nausea (Yeah. Had this one too.)
- Muscle tension
- Dizziness (Well I’ll be.)
While the cause of anxiety is unknown, “anxiety disorders — like other forms of mental illness — are not the result of personal weakness, a character flaw, or poor upbringing.” So why did I go there? Why did I take this possible diagnosis as a personal attack? Why did I leave feeling like shit? Why did I leave feeling insane?
Because the stigma is real (and is ever-present in our subconscious, no matter how aware we are or understanding we may be).
I should be very clear: I was not diagnosed with an anxiety disorder nor is my experience indicative of what someone who suffers from anxiety disorder deals with on a daily basis. (I mean, it may be but I do not know — and I cannot speak for them, or about it.) What I can speak about is how I reacted to it, in an effort to change the conversation, both with others and within ourselves.
And I reacted to it less than gracefully. I became upset. I assumed such a diagnosis meant I was “faking it.” I assumed such a diagnosis meant I was OK even when I wasn’t and I became angry at myself: angry for not being able to “snap out of it” or “shake the feeling.” Angry I blew the whole situation out of proportion.
Ironically, this is not the way I would have reacted if someone else came to me and told me this exact thing. This is not the way I would have reacted if someone came to me and told me they suffered from an anxiety disorder. These are not the thoughts or opinions I would have held about them. So why I was I holding them against myself and — worse — did that make me a fake? A fraud? A sham?
Because of the stigma. Because somewhere some part of me still believes my mental illness is “mental,” i.e. in my mind. Because somewhere some part of me still believes that voice in my head — that voice from my childhood — that says “she’s the crazy one; she has the problem.”
Because somewhere some part of me knows that no matter how far I have come I still have so very far to go.
But I’ll keep going there: one breath, one step, and one word at a time.